Abba Eban. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 5. September 1995.
The Slow Death of Collective Security
The United Nations was born 50 years ago amid such euphoria that a fall from grace was inevitable. Its founding conference at San Francisco in April 1945 resounded with slogans of redemption and hope. Many who attended the sessions may have felt that expectations were being set exaggeratedly high, but few would have predicted that after five decades the peace organization would resemble the chorus in a Greek drama, expressing consternation at events it has no power to control.
Disappointment would be less sharp if the U.N. founders had been content to claim that they were contributing an additional technique to the repertoire of diplomacy. But they were not in a mood to accept such a modest role. They were inspired by a utopian vision. “Inexorable tides of history,” one delegate proclaimed, “are carrying us toward a golden age of freedom, justice, peace, and social well-being.” Another 1945 orator soared to biblical heights: “The U.N. Charter has grown from the prayers and prophecies of Isaiah and Micah.”
Even statesmen renowned for their pragmatic temperament were caught up in the intoxicating rhetoric. The U.S. secretary of state until 1944, Cordell Hull, a Tennessean of austere mien, had never been known to express an enthusiastic emotion. But he saw the establishment of the United Nations as a messianic transformation: “There will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, balances of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests.”
This must surely rank as one of the more ill-considered statements in diplomatic history. International organization, which after all is a mechanism, not a policy or principle, was portrayed as a magic spell that would render all previous politics and diplomacy obsolete.
These salvational hopes were based on the illusion that the American-Soviet-British alliance that had won the victory would command the future—a notion any serious historian could have refuted many months before. But American leaders had evidently convinced themselves that the United Nations, by the mere fact of its existence, would cause a new story, never heard or told before, to unfold across the human scene.
By contrast, the practitioners of traditional diplomacy have never spoken of themselves in the exalted tones adopted by the devotees of international organization. Professional diplomacy is dominated by a sense of limits proceeding from a somber view of human nature. It pursues relatively modest goals, like prolonged stability, rather than a new era in the governance of humankind. It accepts that conflict is endemic to human relations at all levels and that the most that can be done in the international field is to keep conflict within tolerable limits. Diplomats, schooled in their own traditions, know that war prevented is a kind of peace, perhaps the only peace that many nations will ever know. They inhabit a middle ground between excessive skepticism and inflated hope. They understand that in a world without a universally accepted law diplomats will usually have to compromise between what justice demands and what circumstances permit.
The movement for international organization was born in revolt against this unambitious view. Its devotees insisted on nothing less than world peace under law. The theme was collective security. The central premise of this doctrine is that all nations have an equal interest in opposing specific acts of aggression and are willing to incur identical risks in opposing them. This idea, however, is so contrary to all of international experience that nothing short of charismatic authority could ever have brought it to term.
Like all new religions, international organization had a prophet who was deemed to speak consecrated words, and his name was Woodrow Wilson. But Wilson was so assiduous in seeking European support for collective security and its instrument, the League of Nations, that he failed to notice the lack of endorsement for them back home.
The Europeans who thronged the streets of Paris and London in 1919 to greet Wilson as he arrived for the peace talks after the First World War responded ecstatically to the tall, grave American who doffed his top hat in salute. Presidents of the United States were an unknown species to them; none had made such a pilgrimage before. Here was a man representing the greatest power ever to exist who had pledged himself to the most ambitious moral theory any statesman had ever articulated.
But the Europeans were not sold on Wilsonianism. They observed that self-determination had not been extended in America to the red man or the black, or to the southern states. They noted that the American empire had been won with overpowering force. The Europeans thought it natural to prefer the imprecisions of their own system to the vague idealism of a new system that Americans might fail to apply even to their own continent. The truth is that no one outside America has ever taken the theory of American exceptionalism seriously. The theory rests on the assumption that America has an anticolonialist lineage. But the difference between ravaging populations and conquering vast territories within a continent, and conquering them in colonial fashion by sending armies overseas, has never struck non-Americans as a moral distinction.
American leaders who-had qualms about their own rectitude sometimes resolved them by appeal to divine judgment. When in 1897 President William McKinley wanted to annex the Philippines, he spent a whole night on his knees praying for celestial guidance. It is certain that he would not have accepted an answer in the negative. The Heavenly Will worn down by presidential persistence, the United States made war against Spain and moved into the Philippines.
Even the virtuous Wilson, after proclaiming his vision of “open covenants,” went on to organize the most closed and conspiratorial peace conference in history. He closeted himself with the British, French, and Italian leaders—David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Vittorio Orlando—and the Big Four in a vengeful mood drafted a treaty destined to prepare the ground for a new war. A contemporary writer described Wilson as “living on terms of such intimacy with his conscience that any little disagreement between them could always be arranged.”
Wilson died a sad man amid the ruins of his vision, his own country having refused to join the League of Nations, but this did not deter the U.N. founders from seeking a second chance for collective security. In the aftermath of World War II, the hope that the new international organization would have more success than its predecessor seemed well founded. For one thing, the United Nations was assured of universal membership. There were no signs of the American separatism that had spelled weakness for the League of Nations. Since American reservations had been regarded as the main cause of the league’s failure, it was too innocently assumed that American participation would ensure the league’s successor thrived. That the world’s three most powerful leaders—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill—spent long hours at Yalta discussing the U.N. blueprint in meticulous detail lent majestic strength to the internationalist cause.
The U.N. founders had an additional reason for optimism. The new peace organization, they said, would not be toothless like the League of Nations but would be able to enforce its decisions. This idea received expression in Article 43 of the U.N. Charter. A military staff committee composed of members from the five major powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain, and France) would work out a plan for the mobilization of U.N. forces to be held ready under the command of the Security Council. For the first time in history collective security would be institutionalized. In 1945 high officers from the armies of the five great powers gathered to discuss the U.N. force.
The conventional wisdom in the West tells us that right-minded states wanted to create an enforcement mechanism but were frustrated by the persistent Soviet veto. This argument, developed at the height of the Cold War in the early 1950s, is flagrantly untrue. As Cordell Hull told the Senate, the veto provision was an absolute condition for American participation in the United Nations and the small and medium-sized countries regarded the veto as a crucial defense against irresponsible majorities. A conscious decision was taken at San Francisco to avoid any attempt to subject the major powers to collective coercion. A representative of Sweden in 1952 declared that the willingness of the small states to accept the obligations of the new security system was “dependent upon their assurance, derived from the veto provision, that there could be no U.N. call to action against a major power.” The Mexican delegate at. San Francisco said, cogently, that under the U.N. Charter, “the mice would be disciplined, but the lions would be free.”
It is too often forgotten that the charter, signed in June 1945, was Mitten by men unaware that nuclear weapons existed. If they had known, surely they would not have advocated bringing American and Soviet forces into proximity in areas where the two countries’ interests conflicted.
In 1947 the negotiations on Article q3 collapsed, as was inevitable. The five generals and eight admirals of the military staff committee, brilliantly uniformed and bemedaled, would hold ritual meetings a few minutes long at the beginning of each month. The chairman would call them to order, announce that no speakers were scheduled and propose adjournment. A new chairman would take office the next month according to alphabetical rotation. A talent for perpetuating defunct institutions was to bedevil the United Nations in future decades. In this case the monthly meetings were stopped before the farce became too patent.
With the demise of Article 43, the United Nations had renounced the special quality that was intended to distinguish it from its predecessor. It had become, like the League of Nations, an arena of debate, with a capacity, still untested, to promote negotiated settlements, not by coercion but by consent. Collective security as a formula for world order was dead.
For a brief period the United Nations appeared to be fulfilling a central role without the illusion of coercive force. In 1946 the Security Council ordained the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Iran and of French forces from Syria and Lebanon. In 1947 it played a major part in the decolonization of Indonesia. It resolved a potentially explosive dispute over Bahrain. In 1948-49, after some failures, it instituted a durable cease-fire followed by a prolonged armistice between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Meanwhile in 1947 the General Assembly had adopted a decision for the partition of Palestine that has been fiercely debated ever since but cannot be denied to be a strong, daring act free from the obscurity and procrastination usually ascribed to the international organization.
The disposition of the former Italian colonies (Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya) was decided in 1949 by votes in the General Assembly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted at the end of 1948, may not have directly influenced the behavior of states but is nevertheless a bold and proud document illuminated by a vision of humanity in its more compassionate and rational aspect.
Strangely, Israel turned out to be the nation that benefited most from a U.N. action, although few Israelis or Jewish leaders acknowledge this today. The Jewish people presented themselves to the world community in the aftermath of World War II at the lowest ebb of their fortunes. Six million of them, including a million children, had been slaughtered in Europe. The fame and dignity of the Jews had been dragged down in a decade of Nazi calumny. The promised homeland in Palestine was assailed by regional violence and international alienation.
The United Nations responded to the holocaust with an endorsement in 1947 of the Jewish claim to statehood in a partitioned Palestine. A year and a half later, in May 1949, the world body revolutionized the juridical status of the Jewish people by admitting Israel to membership in the United Nations.
The subsequent spate of anti-Israel assaults in General Assembly resolutions had fewer durable effects than did the United Nations’ initial stimulus to the consolidation of Israel’s status. No historian has ever suggested a scenario in which Israel’s sovereignty could have been recognized so quickly in a world that lacked an international organization to fill the vacuum that the end of British power left in the region.
But if the years 1945 to 1950 were the United Nations’ half-decade of innovation, they held a premonition of marginality. All the major powers, including the United States, were determined to ensure that their own vital interests would not be submitted to U.N. jurisdiction. The Marshall Plan and the establishment of the NATO alliance were carried through in total disregard of the world organization. The Security Council, with great pomp and circumstance, established the Atomic Commission and the Commission for Conventional Armaments, but by 1949 both bodies had become inactive; it was evident that if Washington and Moscow ever intended to discuss arms control seriously, they would seek each other out in the privacy of traditional diplomacy.
In the Korean War of 1950-53, the Security Council could pretend to be the commander of the U.N. forces under American leadership, but this fiction was sustained only because the Soviet Union, obtusely absent from its seat, could not wield its veto in the Security Council. In any case, President Harry S Truman preceded his recourse to the United Nations by a typical unilateral decision to send forces first and explain their dispatch afterward. In Europe, the Common Market and the other institutions of the European Community were born without any relationship to the United Nations.
The Hollow Doctrine
It is very unlikely that collective security will ever regain preeminence as an aim of international politics. Its reputation was based on six assumptions, none of which is valid in any contemporary context or any foreseeable future context.
The first assumption is that states will identify their own security with the existing world order to such an extent that they will be prepared to defend that order by involvement in situations seemingly remote from their particular national interests.
The second is that states will be able and willing to agree on the determination of aggression in a particular situation.
The third is that the aggressor will be so weak or lonely that it will be possible to confront him with a superior international force.
The fourth is that states, inspired by the objective principles of collective security, will be willing to punish their closest allies as severely as they would their distant adversaries. Alliance, affinity, and common culture will simply melt away.
The fifth is that nation-states will renounce their power of separate decision in the disposition of their armed forces in areas in which their national interests are not involved.
The sixth is that public debate in a permanent international conference will prove a more effective technique for reaching accords than the traditional method of discreet negotiation between the interested parties alone.
None of these six assumptions is even remotely correct. Still less do they together constitute a realistic model for international behavior.
First, the loyalties built around the nation-state are not transferable to any notion of world community.
Second, what is aggression for one is self-defense for another and national liberation for a third.
Third, many small and medium-sized countries like Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Ukraine now have the sort of firepower an international force would find hard to overcome. Even the Bosnian Serbs with their antiquated weaponry have; been able to intimidate U.N. peacekeepers and NATO air forces.
Fourth, nations, like human beings, are not immune from the laws of human nature; they do not react with equal and objective rigor, or indulgence, toward adversaries and allies.
Fifth, statesmen will not surrender their discretionary response on such crucial issues as the use of their country’s armed forces. Even the relatively innocuous use of forces for agreed peacekeeping and humanitarian purposes arouses strong resentment when casualties are incurred.
Sixth, a half-century of experience has demonstrated that traditional diplomacy, with limited participation and the occasional recourse to reticence and secrecy, offers better chances of reaching accords than does a United Nations committed to public debate with participation on a vast scale.
My conclusion is that collective security failed to take root as the central principle of international life not because its opponents were of small mind or ignoble disposition, but because it did not reflect the spirit of the age. It came on the scene in a world of nation-states, yet called on states suddenly to behave in a way that states had never behaved in the whole of human history.
International law does not give any sort of lead. One of the most tormenting aspects of collective security is that decisions of immaculate legality become harmful if isolated from the chain of consequences. The Anglo-French decision in early 1940 to resist the Soviet invasion of Finland provides an example. The action against the Soviet Union, including its expulsion from the League of Nations, was juridically correct in terms of the league covenant; Finland was entitled to receive international aid against aggression. But Britain and France nearly found themselves at war with Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union simultaneously! Thus the Anglo-French action, while exemplary in legal terms, would, if maintained, have prevented the eventual defeat of Hitler.
Once it became evident in 1947 that the United Nations lacked the enforcement powers envisaged in Article 43 of the charter, that body should logically have considered its future course. No such deliberations took place. Today it is still not clear what the United Nations wishes to be: an instrument for solving conflicts or an arena for waging them. The choice is between the parliamentary and the diplomatic principle. The diplomatic principle tells me I need my adversary’s agreement. The parliamentary principle tells me I don’t need his agreement, since I can defeat and humiliate him by a majority vote. The two techniques call for totally different psychologies and procedures. The unhappy choice of the parliamentary principle ensured that the General Assembly would have a virulently polemical character.
The Wilsonian tradition praised collective security for its emphasis on publicity (“open covenants openly arrived at”) and its rejection of secrecy (“everything shall proceed always frankly and in the public view”). But these are not aids to agreement; they are prescriptions for deadlock. Without phases of secrecy and avoidance of publicity, agreements are virtually impossible. The role of secrecy in negotiation is not a mere relic of tradition. It is crucial. If a nation hears of a concession its representatives have offered without hearing of a corresponding concession from the other party, indignation will erupt at the wrong time, with explosive results. A wiser Woodrow Wilson would have opted for “open covenants secretly arrived at,” as Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson later suggested.
Turn Off the Microphone
With the Cold War over, the world seems to lack a strong incentive to reform its institutions. Nuclear arms have not been used in anger since World War II, the major powers have avoided confrontation, and some regional disputes have been solved. The international system, controlled by the power balance and negotiation, has not been ideal, but it has not been so intolerable as to encourage U.N. members to seek new systems and procedures. The prediction that the choice for humankind would be between international organization and world war has been discredited.
But prudent diplomacy in the traditional mold is a serious alternative, and here there has been important progress. Leaders of nations are now engaged in civil discourse with those whom they would have spurned a few years ago. De Klerk and Mandela bringing apartheid to an end; Rabin and Arafat laying foundations for a Middle East breakthrough; the British government negotiating with the Irish Republican Army; Israel in open contact with Jordan leading to a peace treaty; the Vatican overcoming theological inhibitions and sending a goodwill mission to Jerusalem—it is the era of odd couples, and humankind breathes more freely because of it.
Frustrated by the failure to construct a universal security system, international activists have sought compensations in other fields. One of the consolation prizes was alleged to be strong resonance around the globe. But the United Nations can no longer claim to be the world’s most powerful microphone. Reporting on its debates is scanty and few news media maintain the U.N. press bureaus they once did. The addresses of foreign ministers in General Assembly debate pass from the orators’ lips to oblivion without so much as a temporary resting place in The New York Times.
The relatively meager results for conciliation under U.N. auspices must be considered against the more impressive achievements of conventional diplomacy. The years since the end of World War II have been fruitful for international conciliation, and most of the successes have been scored outside the United Nations. The Austrian State Treaty, which prohibits Austria from possessing nuclear weapons; the termination of the Berlin blockades; the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Union; the end of Algeria’s war for independence from France; the American opening to China; the conclusion of the SALT I arms limitation agreement; the Panama Canal settlement; the Ostpolitik agreements orchestrated by German Chancellor Willy Brandt, leading to the recognition of the European frontiers; the Rhodesia-Zimbabwe settlement; the establishment of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe at Helsinki; the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty; the Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization; the British-Irish dialogue; the Israeli-Vatican reconciliation; the new agreements between the republics of the former Soviet Union and the Western states—these make an imposing list. They offer empirical evidence for a judgment that the public multilateral approach has been much less effective in conflict resolution than traditional negotiating techniques.
One of the main weaknesses of the United Nations is its predilection for public debate in vast audiences with massive participation. Wilson eulogized the idea that “the great things remaining to be done can only be done with the whole world as a stage and in cooperation with the universal interests of humankind.” As with many Wilsonian utterances, this is a victory of eloquence over logic. The “whole world’ is not really the most effective arbiter of disputes. There is more to be said for negotiation between concerned parties whose destinies will be harmed by failure and served by success. As things stand, countries in the United Nations with no crucial interests in a dispute may band together to outvote states whose very survival is at stake.
It is staggering to recall that only three years ago many expected the Vest’s success in resisting Iraqi aggression against Kuwait to lead to a new world order in which the United Nations would preside over a tranquil globe. A cascade of events heralded the triumph of democracy and the market economy over the squalid repressions of the communist system. The collapse of communist ascendancy, symbolized by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, encouraged the belief in a new order.
But this vision flowed from a basic misunderstanding of the previous decades. The West had considered the Soviet Union responsible for instigating all the tensions troubling the world, which led it to fatefully underestimate all other sources of tension and violence. Nationalist rivalries, religious fanaticism, unsolved territorial disputes, ancient prejudices and enmities, a sense of exclusion and discrimination afflicting underdeveloped countries that had thought their political emancipation would be followed by spectacular improvement in their daily lives—these had all been squeezed into a Pandora’s box. The end of the Cold War set these tensions free; they can now explode in their own right and seek their own horizons. The Cold War, with all its perils, expressed a certain bleak stability: alignments, fidelities, and rivalries were sharply defined. But since no sane person would long for a return to those times, there is an urgent need for a serious appraisal of the new international situation.
It is tempting but unfair to blame the United Nations for the world’s recent disappointments. The brain and heart of the organization are in the possession of its component parts; the power of correction lies not in the headquarters on the East River but in the capitals of the member states.
Not much time had to elapse before it became evident that the U.N. decision to protect oil-rich Kuwait did not create any commitment to uphold the rights of oil-free Bosnia or to bring sustained assistance to starving Somalia or Rwanda. All governments take their decisions in the name of national interest and then explain them in terms of self-sacrificing altruism. The central truth in diplomacy is that there are no collective solutions to individual crises.
Cursed Are the Peacekeepers
It was at least feasible that the United Nations might transcend the eclipse of collective security by emphasizing its peacekeeping role. This dimension of the world organization was born during the crisis over the Suez Canal and Sinai in 1956-57. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, Under-Secretary-General Ralph Bunche, and Canadian leader Lester Pearson won merited honor for establishing the United Nations Emergency Force in Gaza and the Strait of Tiran.
Peacekeeping—the use of international forces to monitor the peace between states that have already agreed to maintain peace—does not have a heroic sound. It is so much more modest than “peacemaking” or “peace enforcement” that it gives the impression of “a poor man’s U.N.” But in the Suez crisis and dozens of other troubled situations in the following years, peacekeeping measures have had stabilizing effects. The dozens of volunteer soldiers who sacrificed their lives nobly under the U.N. flag have left humankind in their debt. A real flowering of the peacekeeping dimension would give the United Nations a much-needed injection of prestige.
Unfortunately this prospect does not appear attainable. Since the end of the Cold War there have been useful peacekeeping missions in Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Haiti, but these have been overshadowed by the abject flight of the peacemakers from Somalia, and even more by the dramatic fiasco of peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia.
Britain and France provide the bulk of the 40,000-troop peacekeeping operation in the Balkan region. These troops, despite their proud military lineage, are mocked, harassed, and humiliated by Serb warlords who block the arrival of U.N. relief convoys and impose starvation, as well as cruel bombardment and “ethnic cleansing,” on Muslim populations in Bosnia. The modest aim of the peacekeepers is to ensure that food and medical aid reach Sarajevo and other urban centers, but this cannot be achieved without the United Nations occasionally fighting its way in to the aid recipients and sometimes calling on NATO for air strikes against Serb artillery.
In mid-June the United States strongly pressured its European allies to carry out an air attack on the Bosnian Serb forces. As might have been predicted, the Serb response was to take hundreds of British, French, and Canadian peacekeepers hostage. The peacekeeping commanders meekly suspended the air strikes for several weeks. The hostages were subsequently released, but the spectacle of U.N. officers and soldiers overpowered and threatened by the arrogant Serbs stripped the United Nations of the deference its flag had previously been accorded by member states, even when its power was being defied. The United States maneuvered itself into an intolerable moral position by advocating military action and then passing the consequences on without exposing itself to danger, since it is an American axiom that American lives must not be risked in non-American contexts. Sending lightly armed peacekeepers to areas where there is no peace to keep has brought international discredit to the U.N. system.
At this writing the United Nations faces grave erosion of its effectiveness and authority. Its flame is burning low. In the ruins of what was once Yugoslavia, Serb armies mount brutal assaults that have been the main cause of approximately 200,000 deaths. They carry out the policy of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, starving and torturing their Muslim opponents and inflicting on the civilized world, represented by the U.N. peacekeepers, the worst torment and humiliation ever directed against international emissaries. Ironically, the perpetrators of these attacks on the international order are not powerful armies, to whose tyranny weaker powers have been accustomed to submit. They are from a less than medium-sized semi-nation that could have been subdued by the forces of any one of the several nations that have sent peacekeepers into action. Bosnia demonstrates not a failure of power but a paralysis of will among the European nations and the United States.
In July 1995 Britain and France, in a rare gesture of resolve, announced their intention to establish a U.N. rapid reaction force to protect the Muslim “safe areas” in Bosnia but the Serb armies overran Srebrenica and threatened Zepa and Bihac before any U.N. action could be concerted. At a meeting in London on July 21, the United States, France, and Britain resolved to resist Serb “aggression,” to reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping mission, to refuse to be intimidated by hostage-taking, and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Bosnia “by all means.” This was the most emphatic commitment yet by the Western leaders, but it remains to be seen whether they will act to rescue their governments from the credibility crisis created by similar brave declarations in the past.
The Year of the Planet
If there is no hope for a real collective security system, and if traditional diplomacy is more effective than public rhetoric, what is left for the United Nations to do?
It is easier to diagnose the world’s problems than to find a solution, and easier to formulate solutions than to get the public to accept them. I believe, however, that U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali would elicit a positive response if he proclaimed this the Year of the Planet and devoted the 1995 General Assembly to problems whose solution is beyond the capacity of individual states.
The inhabitants of the earth now number 5.3 billion and at the present rate of increase will number 70 billion by the end of the century. More than half the globe’s people suffer from malnutrition. Life expectancy, which exceeds 70 years in developed countries, is as low as 30 in parts of Asia and Africa. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted by water-borne diseases for which remedies exist. Some 800 million adults throughout the world are illiterate. The most affluent countries are 3,000 percent more prosperous than the least affluent. Science, technology, and industrial progress are still largely confined to the advanced countries, which are home to less than a quarter of the human race. Some of the world’s energy resources are nearing depletion, while the atmosphere and many water sources are suffering wholesale pollution.
Planetary interests may now be the arena most congenial to discussion in multilateral agencies. When disasters occurred in Somalia and Rwanda it would have been logical for the U.N. secretariat to have visibly led the humanitarian effort. Yet the U.N. was marginal even in those two cases. There are many issues that are everybody’s business and, therefore, nobody’s responsibility.
Balked in its quest for a decisive role in international security, the United Nations can be credited with one momentous triumph for its labors: it has given stalwart and audacious support to the pageant of decolonization that has swept scores of new states into the world community. Nothing does more to excite the identity of new nations than the sight of their flags and names around U.N. tables. It is impossible to narrate the story of the end of apartheid and the South African revolution without paying tribute to the U.N. role.
The United Nations must face the central political anomaly of our age—the multiplicity of nation-states in a world where sovereignty has lost a large measure of its meaning. Social history describes the expansion of the sense of community, from family to tribe, from tribe to village, from village to city, from city to nation-state At every stage people have sought larger arenas in which to express their sense of solidarity and cohesion. For some reason the expansion of community seems to have got stuck at the nation-state level. But the idea of a world community of independent states is alive in the human imagination, though not yet in the world of action. Along with the proliferation of the nation-states in their guise as the most important actors in today’s international system goes a countertendency to transcend nationhood through larger units of cooperation. Regional and multilateral bodies are multiplying. The world is integrating and fragmenting at the same time.
Yet there is little hope of a revival for international institutions without a strong impulse for change from an outside power. Under present conditions this impulse can come only from the United States. But at precisely the moment when the United States has virtual command of the U.N. system, it appears to be turning its back on the multilateral idea. The new Congress in Washington is cutting support for U.N. peacekeeping and placing strangling restraints on the use of American manpower for international service. The current administration, which came to power amid strong expressions of support for multilateral frameworks, has accepted limitations beyond anything that previous administrations were prepared to envisage. An esteemed liberal voice, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in the July/August 1995 Foreign Affairs, reminded us that the United States stands twentieth on the list of nations contributing troops to U.N. operations—”well behind such world powers as Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nepal.” America has cut back its budget allocation for the United Nations to a mere 0.15 Percent of GDP, putting it last among the 21 wealthiest industrial nations. Congress’ retreat from its previous devotion to world community is by far the greatest threat to the hope of a revived United Nations.
The world organization had the misfortune to be born with a grossly inflated vision of its interventionist power. Yet if expectations are reduced it might still be possible to reach a positive balance between vision and reality. It would be ridiculous if the first era of planetary interdependence were to find the world without a unitary framework of international relations. With all its imperfections, the United Nations is still the main incarnation of the global spirit. It alone seeks to present a vision of humankind in its organic unity.
At no other time have so many people crossed frontiers and come into contact with people of other faiths and nationalities; the new accessibility is steadily eroding parochialism. In light of these slow but deep currents of human evolution, the idea of an international organization playing an assertive role in the pacification of this turbulent world may have to bide its time, but it will never disappear from view. History and the future are on its side.